The Shield of Achilles by H. L. Havell

Mindful of her promise, Thetis, when she left Achilles, went straightway to Olympus and entered the dwelling of Hephæstus. It was a wondrous structure, all of brass, which the lame god had planned and fashioned by his own skill and labour. She found him in his forge, blowing up the fire with his bellows; for he was hard at work, setting the finish to twenty brazen vessels, for use in his house. Each vessel ran on golden wheels, and moved to and fro of its own accord, coming and going at the master's bidding. With him sat Charis, his wife, watching her husband at his toil; and when she saw Thetis enter she came forward to greet her, and placed a chair, inlaid with silver, for her to sit on. Then she called to Hephæstus, who was stooping over his forge, and said: "Leave thy work, and come and welcome this honoured guest."

"Welcome indeed she is, and honoured too," said the hospitable god, limping across the stithy with outstretched hands. "Did she not save me from my shrewish mother, who was ashamed of her crippled son, and sought to put me out of the way, when I was but a child? Then it would have gone hard with me if Thetis had not received me into her home, the deep cavern, round which Oceanus wraps his watery coils, foaming and thundering everlastingly. There I dwelt in peace for nine long years, and many a pretty jewel I wrought for my preservers—brooches, and bracelets and necklaces. And none of the gods knew where I was, save only kind Thetis and Eurynome, daughter of Oceanus. Therefore thrice welcome, sweet lady of the sea! I owe thee my life, and shall be rejoiced if I can pay part of the debt. Take her, dear Charis, to the guest-chamber, while I put away the implements of my trade."

Thetis left the forge with her hostess, and when they were gone Hephæstus gathered up his tools, and turned the bellows away from the fire. The tools he placed in a vast silver chest, and then taking a sponge he cleansed his face and hands, his brawny neck, and hairy chest. Then he put on a clean tunic, and went to join Charis and her guest. His huge heavy frame was ill supported on a pair of thin, crooked legs; but his own inventive genius had enabled him to supply this defect, for on either side of him walked a wonderful creature, wrought by himself in gold, with the form and face of a maiden, a human voice, and human wit. Leaning on these strange supporters, he entered the guest-chamber, and sat down by the side of Thetis. "What need," he asked, "has brought thee to my poor house—an angel's visit, indeed, to me, both rare and dear?"

Encouraged by the cordial tone of the good-natured god, Thetis poured out afresh all the tale of her woes, beginning from the time when, sorely against her will, she became the bride of Peleus. He was now an old man, broken and infirm, and she a goddess, radiant in her immortal bloom, was still chained to the human wreck, and Achilles, her son, still in the prime of his splendid manhood, was a perpetual source of trouble and grief. "Few indeed," she went on, "and evil, are the days of his life. First foully insulted by his sovereign, and now broken-hearted at the loss of his dearest friend! Help me to do what I can to comfort him in this bitter hour; lend me thy skill, and make him a suit of armour such as never mortal man hath worn before."

"If that be all," answered Hephæstus cheerfully, "thy prayer is granted as soon as uttered. Arms he shall have, which shall make him the wonder of the world when he goes forth to battle."

Then leaving Thetis in charge of his wife he went back to his forge, and having stripped to the waist addressed himself to his work. Round the furnace in the centre of the stithy were twenty pairs of bellows, each serving a separate smelting oven. These he now turned to the fire, and commanded them to blow, for they were endowed with a consciousness of their own, and obeyed the master's will, now sending forth a tremendous blast, which made the fire roar with fury, and the flames leap upward to the roof, now breathing low, like some huge monster in his softer mood. Into the smelting ovens he cast bronze and tin, silver and gold; and when his metal was ready he placed a ponderous anvil on the anvil block, and took in one hand a mighty hammer, while in the other he grasped the tongs.

And first a shield he fashioned, vast and strong,[1] with threefold rim, and baldric of silver. The shield was of five folds; and on it he wrought many a pictured scene with wondrous skill.

[1] This line is from Cowper's version.

There were imaged earth and sea, the unwearied sun, and the moon in her waxing and her waning, and the heavens with all their starry crown—Pleiades, and Hyades, and Orion's might, and the Bear, whom men likewise call the Wain, who turns on the same spot, and watches Orion, and alone has no share in the baths of Ocean.

And there was fashioned many a scene from human life, peace and war, pastime and industry. The first was a city, and along the streets a bridal procession was passing, with blazing torches, and the loud hymeneal song, and the whirl of dancers, and the music of flute and harp; and the women stood at their thresholds, admiring that gay company. But in the market-place was heard the voice of loud dispute; for the elders were met in their session, to decide a quarrel concerning the blood-price of a murdered man. The slayer brought witnesses to prove that he had paid the whole amount; but the plaintiff denied that he had received a doit. Outside the circle stood the clamorous mob, eager partisans of either side, and held in check by the heralds with their rods of office, and in the midst sat the elders in solemn conclave on their seats of polished stone, rising up in turn to give sentence. And he whose judgment was held wisest was to receive a reward of two talents of gold.

A second city there was, hard beset by stress of war. For about it lay two armies encamped, whose counsels were divided: in one the leaders were for taking the city by storm, while in the other they would have made a treaty, by which the citizens were to buy off the attack with half their goods. But while the besiegers were disputing, the citizens left their walls to be defended by the old men and the weaker sort, and sallied out in full force to lay an ambush for a convoy which was on its way to the enemy's camp. So forth they marched, with Ares and Athene at their head, distinguished by their towering stature and golden armour. And when they came to the chosen place of ambush, by the riverside, where was a watering-place for flocks and herds, they crouched down among the bushes, leaving two scouts to warn them of the convoy's approach. Soon they heard the lowing of cattle, and the bleating of sheep, and the sound of the herdsmen's pipes, as they came on, dreaming of no harm; then forth rushed the armed troop, and cut down the herdsmen, and began to drive off the beasts.

The cries of the herdsmen, and the bellowing of the affrighted beasts, reached the ears of the besiegers, as they sat in council, and seizing their arms they mounted their horses, and hurried to the rescue. Then began a furious struggle, in which all the demons of war—Strife, and Confusion, and deadly Fate—held high carnival, and drank deep of human blood.[2]

[2] It should be observed that the poet gives the whole succession of incidents which are merely hinted at by the artist, who is confined to one moment in the story.

Then followed diverse scenes of happy toil. The first was a fair fallow land of rich tilth, where ploughmen were driving their teams to and fro, drawing long furrows, straight and deep, and pausing now and then to refresh themselves with a cup of wine, which was handed to them by a man who stood ready at the end of the field. Dark rose the curling furrow, as the ploughshare passed, and the sods seemed of rich black soil, though wrought in gold; for therein was displayed the artist's skill.

The next was a harvest of yellow corn, and a row of busy reapers with sharp sickles in their hands. Others stood ready to bind the sheaves, and these again were supplied by a willing troop of boys, who gathered up the swathe as fast as it fell, and handed the ripe bundles to the binders. Near at hand stood the master, rejoicing in his wealth; and under a tree at the border of the field the henchmen were slaughtering an ox, to make savoury meat for him and his guests, while women were preparing a mess of pottage for the reapers.

Likewise he fashioned a vineyard, heavy with great clusters of grapes, and along the rows moved a merry troop of boys and girls, with baskets in their hands, gathering the luscious fruit; and when their baskets were full they brought their burdens home with dancing steps, led by a boy who played the harp and sang the sweet dirge of summer in his shrill, childish voice.

Then came a herd of oxen going to pasture, and lowing as they went along the waving rushes, along the murmuring stream. Four herdsmen followed, and with them were nine dogs. But lo! a noble bull, the leader of the herd, falls suddenly in his tracks, struck down by the claws of two ravening lions. They begin to drag him off, and the herdsmen follow at a distance, cheering on their dogs, which leap and bay wildly, but will not close with those terrible robbers.

The last scene of all was a dance of youths and maidens, the youths clad in close-fitting doublets, and wearing hangers at their sides, and the maidens wearing light garments of linen, and circlets of gold on their heads. Holding one another by the wrist, they first moved in a giddy circle, swift and true as the wheel flies in the potter's hands, and then they parted in two rows, and met again, weaving and unweaving all the mazy figures of a Cretan dance, while two tumblers whirled among them, and a singer gave the time with his voice.

Framing this rich succession of pictures ran the broad stream of Oceanus, rolling his waters round the outer rim of the shield.

Corslet, and greaves, and helmet with crest of gold, were fashioned next, and when the great work was done, Hephæstus brought it and laid it at the feet of Thetis. After due thanks, she took leave of her generous friends, and then sped on her way to the Grecian camp, bearing the costly gift of Hephæstus to her son.